Kinds of Feminism


These definitions are selected  from a longer list of terms (compiled from a feminism news group) at  The initials in parenthesis are the people who contributed the definition to the news group.


Liberal Feminism


This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure.  Its roots stretch back to the social contract theory of government instituted by the American Revolution.  Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were there from the start, proposing equality for women.  As is often the case with liberals, they slog along inside the system, getting little done amongst the compromises until some radical movement shows up and pulls those compromises left of center.  This is how it operated in the days of the suffragist movement and again with the emergence of the radical feminists. [JD]

[See Daring to be Bad, by Alice Echols (1989) for more detail on this contrast.]



Radical Feminism


Provides the bulwark of theoretical thought in feminism.  Radical feminism provides an important foundation for the rest of "feminist flavors".  Seen by many as the "undesirable" element of feminism, Radical feminism is actually the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising from feminism; ideas which get shaped and pounded out in various ways by other (but not all) branches of feminism. [CTM]


Radical feminism was the cutting edge of feminist theory from approximately 1967-1975.  It is no longer as universally accepted as it was then, nor does it provide a foundation for, for example, cultural feminism.  [EE]


This term refers to the feminist movement that sprung out of the civil rights and peace movements in 1967-1968.  The reason this group gets the "radical" label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class.  This is a movement intent on social change, change of rather revolutionary proportions, in fact.  [JD]


The best history of this movement is a book called Daring to be Bad, by Alice Echols (1989).  I consider that book a must! [JD] Another excellent book is simply titled Radical Feminism and is an anthology edited by Anne Koedt, a well-known radical feminist [EE].


Marxist and Socialist Feminism


Marxism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/private property system.  Thus they insist that the only way to end the oppression of women is to overthrow the capitalist system.  Socialist feminism is the result of Marxism meeting radical feminism.  Jaggar and Rothenberg [Feminist Frameworks: Alternative Theoretical Accounts of the Relations Between Women and Men by Alison M. Jaggar and  Paula S. Rothenberg, 1993]  point to significant differences between socialist feminism and Marxism, but for our purposes I'll present the two together.  Echols offers a description of socialist feminism as a marriage between Marxism and radical feminism, with Marxism the dominant partner.  Marxists and socialists often call themselves "radical," but they use the term to refer to a completely different "root" of society: the economic system.  [JD]



Cultural Feminism


As radical feminism died out as a movement, cultural feminism got rolling.  In fact, many of the same people moved from the former to the latter.  They carried the name "radical feminism" with them, and some cultural feminists use that name still.  (Jaggar and Rothenberg [Feminist Frameworks] don't even list cultural feminism as a framework separate from radical feminism, but Echols spells out the distinctions in great detail.)  The difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism was a movement to transform society, cultural feminism retreated to vanguardism, working instead to build a women's culture.  Some of this effort has had some social benefit: rape crisis centers, for example; and of course many cultural feminists have been active in social issues (but as individuals, not as part of a movement).  [JD]


As various 1960s movements for social change fell apart or got co-opted, folks got pessimistic about the very possibility of social change.  Many of then turned their attention to building alternatives, so that if they couldn't change the dominant society, they could avoid it as much as possible.  That, in a nutshell, is what the shift from radical feminism to cultural feminism was about.  These alternative-building efforts were accompanied with reasons explaining (perhaps justifying) the abandonment of working for social change.  Notions that women are "inherently kinder and gentler" are one of the foundations of cultural feminism, and remain a major part of it.  A similar concept held by some cultural feminists is that while various sex differences might not be biologically determined, they are still so thoroughly ingrained as to be intractable.




    This branch of feminism is much more spiritual than political or theoretical in nature.  It may or may not be wrapped up with Goddess worship and vegetarianism.  Its basic tenet is that a patriarchal society will exploit its resources without regard to long term consequences as a direct result of the attitudes fostered in a patriarchal/hierarchical society.  Parallels are often drawn between society's treatment of the environment, animals, or resources and its treatment of women.  In resisting patriarchal culture, eco-feminists feel that they are also resisting plundering and destroying the Earth.  And vice-versa.  [CTM]

(End of news group quotations.)



1990s Definitions of Feminism

Barbara Smith, interviewed in off our backs (October 1998, pp. 1 and 16-17) describes her contribution to a new book called A Reader’s Companion to Women’s History, a new book of which she was a co-editor, along with Gwendolyn Mink, Gloria Steinem, Marysa Navarro, and Wilma Mankiller .  The liberal feminists among the book’s editors so disagreed with the definition of feminism that Smith and Mink wrote in an early chapter that they collectively co-authored an essay that responds to it.   Smith says there is nothing in the book to indicate that the essay by Steinem, Navarro, and Mankiller (which follows Smith and Mink’s chapter) is a response to it.


Steinem et al. clearly take a “liberal feminist” approach.  Smith and Mink’s might best be called “radical feminist,” although Smith says in the interview that she defines herself as a feminist who is radical rather than a radical feminist, meaning “leftist, socialist . . . someone who believes in revolution as opposed to reform” (p. 1).  Later in the interview, Smith says she prefers the label “Black feminist,” where “Black” refers to a particular politics rather than to color (p. 16).


Here are the two definitions of feminism:


Steinem et al.:

"The belief in full economic political and social equality of males and females . . . usually seen as a modern movement to transform the male-dominant past and create an egalitarian future.  On this and other continents, however, feminism is also history and even memory"


Smith  and Mink:


"Feminism articulates political opposition to the subordination of women as women, whether that subordination is ascribed by law, imposed by social convention, or inflicted by individual men and women.  Feminism also offers alternatives to existing unequal relations of gender power, and these alternatives have formed the agenda for feminism movements"


I-Feminism – new wave?


Ifeminists, or individualist feminists, say that the feminist slogan "a woman's body, a woman's right" should extend to every peaceful choice a woman can make.  Ifeminists believe that freedom and diversity benefit women, whether or not the choices that particular women make are politically correct. They respect all sexual choices, from motherhood to porn.  As the cost of freedom, ifeminists accept personal responsibility for their own lives. They do not look to government for privileges any more than they would accept government abuse. Ifeminists want legal equality, and they offer the same respect to men. In short, ifeminism calls for freedom, choice, and personal responsibility.

The website also includes an essay tracing their roots in 19th century feminism:


"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute."  --                                                                                             Rebecca West, 1913